Bioware's November 27-bound Mass Effect 3 DLC revisits one of the series' most dangerously exotic locations - the lawless space city of Omega. Embedded deep in the metallic husk of a hollowed-out asteroid - spires of industrial buildings reaching out from its centre - Omega's been described as "the dark, twisted counterpart to the Citadel."
An anarchic haven for criminals, smugglers, bounty hunters, mercenaries, drug-peddlers and outlaws, the dev team has pre-empted Star Wars 1313's harder-edged take on the Lucasverse, by making Omega like Mos Eisley's infamous cantina (crossed with downtown Kabul); a hive of scum, villainy and literal backstabbing, and the place where Shepard reunites with an Asari, Aria T'Loak (voiced by The Matrix star Carrie Anne Moss), the 'Pirate Queen' of Omega.
That's to say, she has the biggest army. Her defining personality traits - whip-smart and jealously dominant - didn't fair too well when her role as top dog was threatened in one of Mass Effect 2's most memorable subplots, and now she's got a new job opportunity for the commander. The mission? Reclaim her throne (well, her favourite haunt on the top floor of nightclub Afterlife). This time, however, it's a galactic-wide paramilitary network Cerberus who need booting out of the city, and they won't be silenced as easily as a few rogue Krogan.
"We wanted to tell a complex story," Bioware Montreal producer Fabrice Condominas told us at a recent EA press event. "We needed a place to house the biggest DLC in Mass Effect history. When we wrote the story, nobody said, 'Right, let's make the biggest DLC,' but it just happened organically." At five hours long, Omega is double the size of the last story-led add-on Leviathan, and Shepard's most expansive assignment yet. To begin it, complete Garrus' mission and return to the Normandy, and then check your inbox for an email from Aria asking you to meet her on the Citadel. Take her up on her offer to start the mission. Next: find out Bioware aren't lying.
The DLC introduces a ripping combat scenario against a new enemy type: the Rampart Mech
Omega's an epic - so large that even during our lengthy playthrough, we barely scratched the surface. What we did play was, amongst other sections, a ripping combat scenario against new enemy type, the Rampart Mech. Built by Cerberus, the Rampart Mechs primarily control populations and disperse crowds - essentially, riot vans on legs. As well as being heavily armed, they're also heavily armoured, blessed with the ability to pass harmlessly through force fields that can instantly kill organics. That's hardly playing fair, but then, Omega's meant for battle-hardened ME veterans who've braved numerous encounters. It's a made-to-order challenge with new threats and faces, even for those who've sunk a few hundred hours into the series.
Cerberus Dragoons are another, elite agent introduced in the multiplayer's bumper Retaliation add-on (though this is their single-player debut) and equipped with twin biotic lashes used to whip players out of cover, and an M-25 Hornet SMG. Roll-dodges and headshots are your best bet - though, intriguingly, you're not allowed to bring your squad mates as backup. This gives Bioware the opportunity to introduce two new ones. The first is Aria, now getting to prove her biotic brawn as well as brain, and the second is a mysterious new female Turian - the first revealed in the series history - called Nyreen. She's another biotic, one playing defense to Aria's offense.
Two biotics might seem like overkill, but their powers play off each other in interesting ways. As we stormed a refinery in one of Omega's industrial sectors, Nyreen laid down a bubble shield (much like the one your chosen biotic protects you with during Mass Effect 2's finale) while Aria let loose a biotic grenade that tracked its target over and behind cover.
Along with the new powers, there are also new weapons in the N7 Valkyrie, which was available in the N7 Warfare Gear DLC as a pre-order bonus, and the Chakram Launcher, which was also previously available, this time in a cross-promotion with Kingdoms of Amalur. The latter uses an internal fabricator to manufacture lightweight ammunition discs wrapped in holographic tracers. The discs explode on impact, sending shrapnel tearing through the enemy. Ouch. Hopefully Bioware have got some brand new weapons to unveil too, rather than unlocking existing ones for a wider audience, but both are, as expected, fun to use and finely tuned.
As with any Mass Effect mission, though, just as important as your firepower is what happens during quiet moments outside the kill zone, moments of moral choice. We asked Fabrice for his favourite. "I'd say that around two thirds of the way into the DLC you have an extremely important choice to make that is quite stressful, and you're pressured by time. As Shepard, you're in the middle of (Aria and Nyreen) who have a different opinion, and you have to side with one. Me? I sided with Aria. That was the renegade choice..."